September 6, 2011
As one of the 50 Best Careers of 2011, this should have strong growth over the next decade
A DVR operating instruction manual. An assembly manual for a coffee table. A how-to guide for using the latest smart phone. What do all of these have in common? They are the results of the hard work of a technical writer. For those who are tech savvy and keep a copy of a MacBook instruction manual handy for their bedside reading, a career as a technical writer may be the right fit. Your job as a technical writer would be to translate difficult-to-understand information into layman’s terms (think: operating instructions, how-to manuals, assembly instructions, and online help information). You may work in engineering, scientific, or healthcare fields, simplifying highly specialized information for the average Joe. Also, you’d work with computers and electronic publishing software, including graphic design, page layout, and multimedia software. Some technical writers who are self-employed or work for a technical consulting firm do freelance or contract work.
Future employment for technical writers looks bright, especially for those with strong Web and multimedia skills, according to estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technical writing positions are expected to grow by more than 18 percent, or 8,900 jobs, by 2018. There will be an increasing demand for technical writers who specialize in law, science, or technology. Keep in mind that technical writers will prosper only to the degree their industry does—so jobs in healthcare, for instance, may be more secure than jobs in other fields more vulnerable to downsizing or offshoring.
Median pay for technical writers was $62,700 in 2009. The lowest-paid technical writers earn less than $37,000, and the highest-paid positions earn more than $100,000. In some industries, offshoring may put downward pressure on pay.
Advancement for technical writers entails working on more complex assignments, leading or training junior staff, and getting enough work to be a full-time freelancer. Keeping up with the latest technology is essential. It helps if you’re comfortable working as a contractor, since companies increasingly prefer to hire that way.
Relatively low. With continued advances in laptop computers and wireless communications, technical writers can work from virtually any location with Internet access.
Moderate to high. Expect to work early mornings, late nights, and weekends to meet deadlines or coordinate with clients in different time zones. These deadline pressures and work hours can often lead to stress, fatigue, and even burnout. Extended time spent in front of computers can lead to eyestrain and back pain.
Education and preparation:
You will need a college degree, some knowledge in a technical subject, as well as Web design and computer graphics experience. Employers look for technical writers with a bachelor’s degree, preferably in communications, journalism, or English. It is becoming common for technical writers to have a degree in a specialized field, such as engineering, business, or science. Also, familiarity with Web design, electronic publishing, and computer graphics is becoming more valuable in this digital age.
Real advice from real people about landing a job as a technical writer:
“The key is to be able to talk to the technical experts—be they engineers, auto mechanics, food specialists, or doctors—then interpret what they say and write it down in clear English that other people can understand. One way to get started is to write non-fiction wherever and whenever you can. Write articles for local newsletters (everybody has a newsletter), websites, or blogs. Write instructions, training materials, or safety procedures at your current job. Even learn to write a book. In all cases, keep a copy of everything you write so you can show people what you’ve done.”—John Hedtke, owner of JVH Communications in Eugene, Ore., and author of 26 books and nearly 200 magazine articles